Sucking up knowledge and light: Professor and students collaborate on black hole research

by Marlena Chertock, November 16, 2010

Physics professor Dan Evans is researching the physical properties of black holes with two Elon freshmen. The team will look at images from the Chandra Observatory telescope in May. Photo courtesy of University Relations.

Dan Evans never knew exactly what he wanted to do until college when he first saw the images from the Hubble telescope. Now, as an Elon physics professor, Evans studies one particular cosmic body — black holes.

Evans said he wants to understand the physical processes of the cosmic bodies in space, which is the focus of astrophysics.

He described black holes as enormous cosmic vacuum cleaners.

“It turns out that just as the material takes its last death plunge into the black hole, it also releases a huge birth of X-ray emission and gives off a big flash,” he said.

This flash can be tracked by the Chandra X-ray Observatory telescope, the telescope he is using to conduct research.

“If I take an X-ray photograph of the night sky, we can find out what (black holes) are doing, what they’re eating,” he said.

Evans said he plans to use black holes to test Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

“This is part of the $3.5 billion mission from NASA that I’ve been working on for the past decade now,” Evans said.

The funding for this project comes directly from NASA, he said.
Before coming to Elon this year, Evans worked with NASA at Harvard University and Massachusetts Institution of Technology.

“My research involves supermassive black holes, which are incredibly massive black holes,” Evans said. “They have a huge amount of gravity associated with them. What I try to do with them is to understand how they work.”

Evans is bringing two Elon freshmen onto his research team, Todd Calnan and Matthew Barger. A third student will start next semester.

“I really like the undergraduate program here,” he said. “I’ve always placed a firm emphasis on undergraduate research and it seems like Elon is really making a substantial push to put itself on the map for leading undergraduate research. I wanted to be a part of that effort.”

They started the research in mid-September. In May, they will view galaxy NGC 1068 through Chandra.

Evans said the students are researching to understand how black holes flow material.

“It turns out it’s actually a very complicated process,” Evans said. “If we find out that, we can measure out the process of the black holes.”

Calnan said he wants to get a solid foundation in this type of work, which he said he’s confident that Evans can provide.

“I’m a physics major and I’m particularly interested in cosmology,” Calnan said. “This type of research is what I’m going to be doing for quite some time and I thought it would be good to get a head start.”

He said that he’s learned to use the computer programs, which analyze data, and the basic physics of black holes.

Calnan and Barger have also learned how to program UNIX, which they use for entering data Chandra supplies.

“The point of the research is to determine how fast the black hole is rotating given certain data,” Calnan said. “I also like the idea of being able to find something out that nobody else knows about yet.”

Barger said he sees this research as a way to broaden his view of the world of physics.

“(Evans’) presentation (on black holes) in the beginning of the year really captured me,” he said. “He talked about the different situations of black holes throughout the universe. There are quite a handful of them. Each one of them has their own story. I thought that was interesting.”

A certain set of principles in space applies to every single black hole in different ways, Barger said.

“Dr. Evans’ research will allow you to apply the principles to all of these different black holes and see things that other people have yet to see,” he said.

Evans creates a comfortable, motivating atmosphere, according to Barger.

“The way Dr. Evans presents our tasks to us makes us feel we can do it,” he said. “I didn’t know (Calnan) before, but (we) work well together. Dr. Evans keeps us on the same page. We started out doing the same thing, but I think Dr. Evans is trying to make it so that the tasks we’re doing are slightly different than the other’s work.”

Evans said he tries to take his passion directly into the classroom and research. He said he wants to encourage students to take astronomy classes.

“I want to give them the training so they can embark on careers, hopefully as professional scientists,” Evans said. “I think that’s a big part of the Elon experience.”

He said he hopes the students will continue researching with him for four years.

“I don’t take students on unless they have a lot of passion themselves,” he said. “I don’t take them on unless I look forward to the next four years together.”

Both Calnan and Barger said they plan on continuing this research.
Evans said he wants to take students to an astronomy conference in May.

“It’s not so much what I have to do, it’s what they have to do,” he said. “They’ve got to show that they have the hallmarks of becoming professional scientists. They have to do a research project at professional or near-professional standards.”

Evans said he hopes to expose students to what life as a scientist is like.

“It’s actually an exciting one,” he said.

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Marlena Chertock

Marlena is a digital storyteller and poetry editor at District Lit. Her first poetry book, On that one-way trip to Mars, is available from Bottlecap Press.